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Lufthansa to roll out rapid coronavirus testing, a move that could change pandemic air travel


Employees of Lufthansa wear protective masks as they wait for passengers at a boarding gate. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

German airline Lufthansa plans to start offering rapid coronavirus testing for passengers in October, a company executive said Tuesday, according to Reuters.

The new antigen tests will initially be available for first-class and business-class passengers only because supplies are limited, Bjoern Becker, the company’s senior director for product management, told reporters. He added that Lufthansa is also considering the possibility of opening testing sites at airports in the United States and Canada.

While airports have been offering rapid testing, major airlines have not. Last week, Alitalia announced it will begin flights from Rome to Milan that only allow passengers who have had a covid-19 test with a negative result 72 hours before the flight.

Rapid antigen tests are inexpensive to produce but typically less accurate than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and may produce false negatives. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said that all negative antigen test results should be confirmed with a PCR test.


A flight passenger walks past a Lufthansa ticket counter at Frankfurt Airport on September 21, 2020. (Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

As demand for international travel has dried up, some in the industry hope that a quick test before hopping on a flight will prove more palatable than the prospect of 14 days in isolation. The International Air Transport Association on Tuesday called for rapid, affordable testing for all passengers, noting that many would-be travelers are deterred by quarantine requirements and a constantly changing patchwork of restrictions.

“Quarantine measures are killing the industry’s recovery,” Alexandre de Juniac, the organization’s director and CEO, said Tuesday. “Some 83% of travelers in a recent 11-market survey said that they will not travel if there is a chance of being quarantined at their destination. That is a very clear signal that this industry will not recover until we can find an alternative to quarantine.”

Public opinion polls show that an overwhelming majority of travelers are willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process and believe that a negative coronavirus test should be mandatory for all travelers, de Juniac said. He noted that two pharmaceutical companies, Roche and Abbott, have developed rapid antigen tests that deliver results in minutes.

“The speed at which testing capabilities are advancing tells us that we will have deployable options in the coming weeks,” he said.

Some countries have already established their own testing programs for travelers, but they will need to agree on common standards to ensure that tests conducted in one country are accepted in another, de Juniac said. Ensuring that testing takes place before departure “will also boost passenger confidence,” he predicted.

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